November 2006 Archives

My New Office at Sam Yan

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Most of last week was spent hitting the pavement in search of an office for my new company. And luckily I found a decent cheap one, surprisingly enough from craigslist's Bangkok page. Not many people know about Craig's List here, but one Thai guy who went to school in Portland did, and now that he is a real estate agent in Bangkok, that was one of the first places he turned to advertise.

In any case, I signed the papers for the lease today an paid a three-month deposit. The office is in a small, low-rise building near the Sam Yan subway station. It's not to far from the main business district of Silom, but it's on a side street, so the rent was much lower. It's still very convenient to the subway, though, so I guess I will need to buy a frequent rider card for the MRT now.

As one friend in the US noticed, I am skipping the whole "work from the garage" phase and jumping right into the "spending money" phase. And I guess he's right. After working at home for most of a year now, I want to have my own office. Preferably one that doesn't have a bed or a TV nearby! Plus, I really do hope to hire some people early next year, so we will all need a place to work together.

So now my company has officially been registered, and I have an office to move into when I return from the US in January. Just some more paper work for taxes and for work permits, and I will be good to go. I've also already been talking to a few people who might be interested in joining me next year, so hopefully I will be able to build a good, small team quickly.

And all the time, in the back of my head, there is a little voice that is asking what the heck I am doing and why am I spending all of this money in such a risky venture. It was the same voice that was trying to talk me out of coming to Thailand in the first place, so I mostly ignore it. There are still too many things to do anyway!

Greedy Expats in Cambodia

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I have heard of abuses (corruption?) in the NGO community in SE Asia, but I didn't realize it was as bad as a recent article suggests. An article from today's "The Australian" website said that up to 80% of international aid goes to cushy expat employment packages. "A country director for a prominent international charity typically receives a $250,000 package that includes a spacious villa, four-wheel-drive and schooling perks."

If this is true, it is really, really sad. Just taking into account the salary alone, someone making $250,000 a year is making $684 EVERY DAY. According to the CIA World Factbook, Cambodians make an average of around $2,500 EVERY YEAR. So this rich expat is making a an Cambodian annual salary EVERY FOUR DAYS. Makes you wonder who is truly the recipient of the "charity".

I mentioned the book "Leaving Microsoft to Change the World" before. One stat that Tim Woods mentions is that the NGO he founded (Room to Read) only has a 10% overhead, which means that 90% of all donated funds go to the people they are trying to help. That is a very respectable number.

Just goes to show that when you make those contributions, it's a good idea to check to see where they are really going...

The article I referenced above is Expat pay absorbs aid to Cambodia

Shanghai Photos Posted

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I finally found some time to post a few pictures from our trip to Shanghai. You can view them in the Shanghai Photo Album. I didn't get a chance to write much about our trip, but you can see what I had to say in Silence and Shanghai. I tried to add a few comments to the pictures to tell more about our trip, so check them out in the Photo Album.

So I guess I have been posting here more than usual lately. (8 posts in the last 10 days. Wow.) I guess that's a sign that my life is under control. And for the most part, it is. I've also been working on the new business paper work as well as starting on creating the technology for it. I've also been planning upcoming trips to Tokyo (my first time) and to the US for Christmas. Fun stuff...

A Trip to the Thai Criminal Court

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I went to the Bangkok Criminal Court today. But don't worry, I went as a specator, not as a plantiff or defendant.

My friend Francois from San Francisco is in town this week, and this time he brought along his two aunts and one of their friends. Francois, one of his aunts, and the friend all work in the legal field in the Bay Area. We all went to dinner at Anna's Cafe on Sala Daeng a few nights ago, and the friend (who is actually a judge) was grilling Piyawat about his new job at the law firm and about the Thai legal system.

Piyawat was nice enough to call one of his law school friends who works at the Criminal Court, and he recommended that we come see a trial that he was working on which involved a farang defendant. So today, the three of us (Piyawat, the judge, and myself) arrived at the court to see how it all works.

Unfortunately, the farang defendant was a no-show, but we watched the trial for a little while anyway. Of course it was all in Thai, and even Piyawat had trouble figuring out what was going on from our seats in the back of the courtroom. But basically the case was brought by a Thai girl who was suing a farang guy because she bailed him out of jail and he never paid her the bond money back. He said that the court hadn't returned the money yet, but she knew that they had.

Anyway, it was an interesting experience, even though we didn't have any idea what was going on. One really strange thing about the Thai courts was that there were two judges, and one of them had a microphone for recording herself. Bascially she recorded a play-by-play of the lawyer's questions and the witnesses' answers. Every now and then, she would play the recording back for herself. We all had no idea why they don't just record everyone's speech, but that's the way they do it here.

And let's just say that hopefully I won't be going back to Court any time soon!

Looking Back at Chiang Rai, July 2003

Exactly three years and four months ago, I went on a trip to visit a friend who lived in a hilltribe village in Wawi Valley, Chiang Rai province. I (of course) took a lot of pictures of the trip, but I posted them to a different website than this one. Today I started combining the two sites by adding these pictures from Chiang Rai here.

On the other website, I wrote a fitting introduction: "The following pictures were taken on a long weekend trip to Chiang Rai provence in northern Thailand, July 11-14, 2003. The goal of the trip was to enjoy the beauty of the mountains, explore hilltribe villages, and visit my friend No. Judging by these pictures I think I accomplished my mission."

The pictures are best seen in the July 2003 Photo Album. If you are interested in reading my posts from that trip, they can be found at:

* VIP Bus to Chiang Rai (July 11, 2003)

* Exploring Rice Fields (July 11, 2003)

* Mountain Hike Through Hilltribe Villages (July 12, 2003)

* Cold and Wet: Khon Korn Waterfall (July 13, 2003)

This short trip was one of my most memorable journeys in Asia, and I definitely had a lot of fun today reliving those memories. It sounded like it was my first real up-close-and-personal experience with rice fields and buffalos. And it sounded like I slept and ate a lot. What a great trip!

And by the way, my friend No is still doing fine as well. He is working in a restaurant in one of Bangkok's fanciest hotels, so he is doing quite well for himself.

Laughing At Our Mistakes

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It looks like my little stories on competition have sparked a few comments from both Thai and Americans. I'm glad to see it. One of the most interesting posts came from a Thai person, who said:

Perhaps like most Thais, I always laugh at my bad performances or failure. That is why Thailand is a so-so country. Not so poor but not so rich. Not so bad but not so good. By the same token, that is probably why life here is easy and quite OK.
There is a lot of truth in that statement. I remember as a teacher, when I would point out a Thai student's mistake, they would often laugh. This drives western teachers absolutely crazy. We expect to see solemnness, or at least something along the lines of "I understand my mistake and I will try to do better next time." Laughing (to us) just means that the mistake is unimportant and trivial.

I think that in general, Americans are not very good at laughing at our mistakes. I think our initial response is more along the lines of embarrassment, or anger. And that anger is either directed at ourselves if we are honest, or at other people if we like to shift the blame.

So maybe us Americans can learn to lighten up a bit? On the other hand, as the Thai commenter said, this cultural quirk (one way or the other) has much larger ramifications for the development of the country. On the third hand (heh) it also has ramifications for the stress level and seriousness of a popluation. A very insightful comment indeed.

Leaving Microsoft to Change the World

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Imagine being an high-ranking executive making a huge salary at one of the world's biggest companies, with frequent interactions with the world-famous CEO. Now imagine throwing it all away to build schools and libraries in some developing country on the other side of the world.

John Wood did just that, and lived to write a book about it: Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: An Entrepreneur's Odyssey to Educate the World's Children. I picked it up by chance a couple of weeks ago, and finished it off on our recent weekend trip to Phuket.

I have to say it's a great read, and highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in education in developing countries. The book is basically an auto-biography of the last few years as Wood turned himself from high-flying software exec to running a bare-bones startup NGO that donated books and built libraries, first in Nepal, but then expanding into Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka, through an organization called Room to Read.

I saw a lot of similarities in John's story and my own life. Many of his anecdotes about his travels in Asia were very similar to mine. And like him, I grew tired of working hard in San Francisco making rich companies richer. There is so much that can be done in this part of the world to help children have an opportunity to improve their lives and the lives of their families. Reading the book was definitely encouraging to me personally to try to find a way to do what I can myself to help. I won't be founding a non-profit to deliver books to Nepal any time soon, but perhaps there are other ways to make a contribution. In the case of Room to Read, their website has a list of ways that people can participate.

Of course not everyone can quit their job and change their lifestyle and pick up to move to another continent, but everyone can make small donations to organizations like John Woods', whether its donating money, books, time, or just spreading the word. One of the most impressive statistics about Room to Read is that, unlike many NGOs, they keep their overhead as low as possible -- under 10% so far. You can also earmark your donations to a specific cause: $2000 will build a library in an existing school, while $2,500 will fund one girl's scholarship to school for 10 years. A full list of possible projects you can sponsor can be found on Room to Read's Adopt a Project page.

It's great to see the success they have had so far: Founding almost 3,000 libraries, donating over 1.2 million books, and funding over 2,000 girls scholarships, among other achievements. Here's hoping they have continued success.

After writing the post a couple of days ago about competition in Thailand, I was reminded of another recent event where my competitive streak came out. Piyawat and I spent last weekend in Phuket, and our hotel just happened to have a Ping Pong table. It had been years since the last time I played, so I wanted to give it a try.

Needless to say, I was terrible. And I hated that. Piyawat and I played about six 10-point games, of which I won exactly ONE. Not only was I losing, I was losing by a lot. I think the average score was around 10-3. The more he trash talked me and made fun of my failures, the more frustrated I became. The more frustrated I became, the worse I played.

Finally, I was able to gain control and play a better game. We finished with a 21-point game. I lost by two, which I was satisfied with. At least I was not beating myself

So that is twice in one week that my competitive nature came out, and it was a real mental exercise to focus and gain control. And in both cases, I was reminded about how Thai people in general are not that competitive. Certainly there are exceptions, but by and large I don't see much desire to "win".

I certainly noticed it in my University students. It was very rare that a student would work extra hard to get the best grade in the class. Most were happy being average. The bell curves for the class were always very steep and tall, with not many pushing themselves to stand out from the crowd on either end of the spectrum. They would also be very willing to do homework for their friends and happy to let people copy from their exams. I'd say that is a rare thing in the US, where most are fighting to "beat the curve".

As I mentioned in the last post, I think that I have learned a lot of patience from living in Thailand. And that is a good thing. But I am not so sure that losing my drive or my competitiveness is so good. Maybe it can be toned down a bit though. Everything should be in moderation, after all, right?

Everyone has guilty pleasures, right? Well, one of mine is reading hilariously funny blogs of questionable taste. There are a few that stick out in my mind, for example, Heather Armstrong's blog at Dooce.com. Her pictures of her cute dog, Chuck, with things balancing on his head never fail to crack me up. Why do I think this is funny? I have no idea. (Click on the link and see if you agree with me!)

Another website that makes me laugh out loud, even though I feel like I shouldn't, is the Secret Diary of Steve Jobs. Some anonymous person who calls himself "Fake Steve" pretends to be Steve Jobs, and writes a completely irreverent, tasteless, yet hilarious website.

For example, a recent post talks about his lunch with Al Gore and Nancy Pelosi. This is what he had to say:

We meet in this Thai restaurant in Los Gatos. Out back, private room. Table set with knives and forks. She tries to be all cool and hip-to-the-ethnicity-thang and asks for chopsticks. Waiter gives her this funny look but brings her back chopsticks, kinda laughing at her. And he offers them to us, too, like, Here you go, stupid white people. Al takes his, all proud of himself, but I tell the guy, in Thai, (which yes I happen to speak), No thank you, I'll use a knife and fork, I'm not a frigtard like my companions. Waiter cracks the frig up, I mean like doubles over. Pelosi's kind of taken aback so I tell her, Um, actually, Thai people don't use chopsticks. They eat with knives and forks. She goes, really? I go, Yup. No matter, she's sticking with her chopsticks. Then she asks the dude if they've got sushi. He kind of groans. Finally I just order for the table and when the food comes, sure enough, she goes ahead and eats her pad thai with friggin chopsticks, like a frigtard, and Al does the same, though he clearly has no friggin idea how to use them and looks like someone trying to eat a hot dog with a pair of baseball bats.

I never knew Steve Jobs knew so much about Thai language and culture. I wonder how he would do at a Charity Bowling event in Bangkok...

Obviously, I live in a foreign culture. And as any westerner who has visited Thailand can tell you, Thai culture is often the direct opposite of western culture. Of course the superficial cultural differences are obvious: the language, the music, the movies, the lifestyle.

But some things are deeper and more hidden. I uncovered one of these differences today, and even though I was mildly aware of it before, I was still surprised when it happened and was even more surprised at my absolute inability to adapt to the new cultural situation.

It all happened at the bowling alley. Piyawat's family was taking part in a charity there. It was a competition of sorts, with trophys for the highest scores. The first cultural difference was realized when we were told to be there at 8:30, but actually didn't start until 10:00. The reason was given that traffic was bad and so we had to wait until everyone showed up.

I can deal with waiting. I was patting myself on the back for my new-found mai bpen rai patience that I have Thailand to thank for. Ok, so far so good.

But then I very quickly realized that this bowling "tournament" was nothing like I had ever seen. First of all, everyone only took one shot, instead of two per turn. Ok, no big deal there, I guess. But then I realized that there was a bowling alley employee working the computer at our lane. He would change the score after every roll of the ball. Here is how the scoring worked:

* If you knock down an even number of pins, you get a strike for that frame.

* If you knock down an odd number of pins, you get to count that number for the first roll, and get a spare for the second.

And then here is the kicker:

* If you get a gutter ball, that counts as FIVE PINS, plus you get a spare for the frame.

* If you get three strikes (i.e., an even number of pins) in a row, you get a plastic bag with fruit juice and cookies inside.

These rules go against any notion of competition I have ever known. Bowling was quickly changed from a game of skill into a game of luck (even or odd numbers of pins). And to make matters worse, sometimes you would only get 8 or 9 pins to aim at instead of 10. And many times, the attendent made mistakes and would give you a strike when you only "deserved" a spare!

Needless to say, I was beside myself. How can I compete? How can I prove my skill (or lack of)? And I am not even a good bowler, averaging around 100 per game. But I want to be graded on my skill and to compete with those around me. Who is better or worse? I don't really care, but I want to compete!

Piyawat saw my discontent and tried to explain to me that it was "just for fun". I replied back that my idea of fun was keeping score and trying to break 100 and trying to beat every other bowler in the room. Cut-throat, no-holds-barred competition is fun!

And sure enough, I looked around and saw that I was the only spoil-sport in the alley. The Thai adults around me literally squealed with joy when they were lucky enough to get "three strikes" and were awarded bags of juice and cookies. They were all having a wonderful time. (I did win the bag of goodies one time, by the way.)

And even more disconcerting was that I could not join them. I was so caught up in the notion of individual competition that I could not enjoy myself. It's embarrassing to say it, but it's true. I am even getting worked up again now just thinking about it. But towards the end I started getting in the spirit a bit. All I could do was to concentrate and do my best to get real strikes, and to not look at the score board, and to not count the number of pins before I bowled. And by doing that, I did have a little bit of fun before it was all over.

So even though I am a 100-point bowler, at least now I can report to the world that my new high score is 224. I think a 300 is within reach someday, as long as I am bowling in Bangkok!

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This page is an archive of entries from November 2006 listed from newest to oldest.

October 2006 is the previous archive.

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